Another Real Time Strategy game? Think again. Black & White is an RTS game but also perhaps the most original title ever to grace the genre from the perspectives of gameplay, goals, and story. You play the game as a God, and you can choose to be a personification of either good or evil – you can go either way. At the game’s outset, you are given a village to take ?care’ of, and as the game progresses you will have to manage many more of them, each with different needs and goals. Instead of levels you play the game travelling through islands where you will find different villages and tribes, though not all of them are available for your deity to control – at first. It all sounds rather straightforward but it isn’t. Black & White can get a bit complicated if you add the fact that you must train a creature to represent you among the people; this creature is your very own pet and it too can be good or evil, black or white.
For the majority of its game time, Black & White is graphically competent, and occasionally it excels. The townspeople all appear clearly until you zoom in and view them close up, at which point they don’t look especially sharp and have somewhat of a blurry look to them. However, the creature models and landscape environments do offer consistently good quality graphics. The most impressive game graphics can be seen when you perform miracles: thunder, fire, even torrential rain look very realistic and destructive. And it is at these specific times when, as the audience, you’ll want the graphics to shine – thankfully they do. The cut scenes are all done in real time; there are no FMVs, so there’s not much difference in graphics in the cut scene department. A particularly impressive detail that I observed occurs when you zoom in, or out, of the island you are on and, amazingly, there is very little pixilation.
Black & White has extremely involving sounds that are implemented throughout the game. NPCs will talk to you and beg you for a food offering, or wood supplies, or whatever it is they need (there is a patch you can download for free to hear this). When you zoom in on animals you can hear them making specific noises according to their species. Your pet creature makes its own sounds, too, depending on what type of creature you choose, of course. You really feel as though you exist in a natural environment when moving around the island; the ambient sounds easily promote your belief in the game world. It’s funny to hear the sounds emanating from your pet creature (especially when you choose the chimp); when it wants food, or when it becomes angry are two obviously discernable sounds. Even when your creature is just exploring, or simply walking around, it will make specific breathing noises. Obviously, you can hear all the sounds better if you’re zoomed in close – not all the time, but it is often better to zoom closer to gather a clearer sense of the environment and its populous. Black & White does a solid job in the sound department, and certainly meets expectations. Sound in every videogame should help coax a high level of involvement from the player?and Black & White nails it!
Here is where the game becomes tricky, because Black & White is in no way similar to playing games such as StarCraft or Age of Empires. But the original gameplay is what truly set it apart from other Real Time Strategy games. The good side is that throughout the game you will find helpful signposts that really do offer assistance on how to play the game, and all of these nuggets of info are saved in your temple. The temple serves as your pause menu and your safe haven; you can check stats for your creature here, your world progress and your performance. There is also a Future Room that can give hints on future events, and a Library that saves all the information you find throughout the game (when in doubt enter here), there’s a Challenge Room to make challenges with your creature, the Creature Room where you can see what your creature is capable of doing, as well as its vital stats.
You will spend much time with your creature, you are your creature’s teacher, the creature will imitate whatever you do: if it sees you uproot a tree or destroy a villager’s house it will learn to do that (and think it’s a good thing), if you mistakenly teach your creature to do something that you immediately regret, then can always beat the hell out of it. At any time you can stroke or strike your creature to make it feel good or bad about its behaviour, or instil more aggressive or humility. Like so many things in Black & White: it’s your choice. Your creature will have to fight with other creatures to gain territory, and you can teach this to your creature too. You can make it more aggressive depending on which ‘leash’ you make it wear. There are three types of leashes: one for learning, one for aggressive behaviour, and a ‘good boy’ leash for tenderness. If you have a leash attached to your creature it will learn whatever you perform in front of it. It’s also possible to make your creature remain in one particular area by attaching its leash to objects. Teaching your creature can lessen the stressful task of managing ‘people’. People are a pain, they consume resources very quickly and die faster if you don’t satisfy their wanton needs. Though you can always be evil and not care about them, thus promoting a ‘respect through fear’ approach. Again, it is your choice.
You can assign different tasks to the populations of your villages by picking up individuals and placing them wherever you want them to perform tasks. For instance, if you put a villager by some trees, then he/she will become a forester…and so on. So, unlike other Real Time Strategy games, you can’t pre-assign or create villagers with jobs; any villager can change jobs at any time in Black & White. Your whim is their command. In order to construct you will need a workshop (and obviously someone working in there). All you, as God, must do is supply the materials then let other people do the hard labor (it is important to say that you can always help out…should you want to). Another, more important, task you’ll need to have your villagers do is offer up worship…to you. You need ‘worship power’ so you can perform miracles like rain, thunder and fire, and you can even create forests and food or wood supplies. Performing miracles can be an extremely enjoyable activity, and you will need to perform them a lot. You can also teach your pet creature to carry them out too, which helps to make your ethereal life that little easier. Sometimes you will need miracles in order to take control of other villages that are ‘owned’ by another god. You will need to expand Influence if you hope to wrestle away someone else’s territory. This will determine where you can perform miracles, and one of the goals is to be able to control an entire island.
Other goals appear in the game in the form of cut scenes or scrolls, they may be either silver or gold. Gold scrolls are missions that you need to accomplish in order to jump to the next one, silver scrolls are extra missions you can do to help people. You just need to click on a scroll to know what the mission is about. As you can see, gameplay is one of the elements that you will spend considerable time learning…but it is worth the effort, and it can be fun to learn, perform, and perfect all these tasks.
As for the mechanics of the gameplay, it is fairly easy to control all of these aspects, especially as you can teach your pet creature to execute many of them, which leaves you free to cast your mind towards other things. Zooming in on the camera view and navigating the environments is almost seamless, there’s not too much effort involved. One of the best facets of the game’s mechanics is the ability to perform miracles without choosing them from the menu in the lower part of the screen. You can just ?paint’ the miracle symbol with your (godly) hand; you just need to select a spiral symbol and then the specific miracle symbol. For example, the symbol for rain is the letter W (for water), and so you just paint that spiral followed by a W and then you can make it rain. Don’t worry, if that still sounds complex, you’ll get the hang of the mechanics very quickly.
With such a vast array of gameplay aspects, Black & White sounds overwhelming, but it’s not quite so drastic in that regard – at least after you have played it for a while. At the beginning of the game you will feel rather dumb, and you will make many mistakes along the way, but all is not lost. You learn through doing, and after a while it will become easier to perform certain godly tasks. That doesn’t mean that the game is by any means easy; fighting other gods and gaining territory can be outrageously challenging, as is fighting against other creatures. The game has a good level of challenge without being too stressful and it always maintains a high level of enjoyment. Plus, you can always play online and work together with other ?gods’ or fight to depose them. This can offer considerably more longevity and challenge than the single-player experience.
Whether you love or hate Real Time Strategy games, this may (still) be the game for you. It’s not a typical RTS, so it can be entertaining even if you don’t especially like the genre. Black & White is an outstanding and original game that is surely bound for the ?classics’ list. Don’t miss out!